Istanbul advice

The best piece of advice we got on visiting Istanbul was to approach the Blue Mosque from the Hippodrome.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We found a lovely apartment for the week on or something similar. It was spacious, homey, with the feel of an old New York apartment building. Radiators, wide-plank wood floors. And it was dirt cheap. The only catch was its proximity to Taksim Square and Istiklal Cad, kind of like plopping yourself down on Second Avenue in the East Village, but with twice to three times the pedestrian traffic. (Imagine SoHo shopping combined with East Village drinking.) Nice place to visit, but you won’t get much sleep there. Suffice it to say we purchased ear plugs for everyone in the house the second night, something you should do too if you’re sleeping too close to Istiklal Cad. Even then, we slept fitfully. Live music from all directions, including singing in the street after the 4:30 am closing times. Garbage men show up around 5. My dad took notes on one night’s set at the covers bar across the alley way:


I have strong memories of a live cover of “Moves Like Jagger,” which had a much more compelling bass line than I’ve ever heard in the original.

We went with the local tourism bureau’s licensed guides at the Topkapi Palace and the Haghia Sofia. Completely worth it in every way: we jumped the queues, got a lot more out of the sights, and had terrific conversations with smart guys whose sense of the first person plural includes the Ottoman Empire.


We made the right decision to give the Haghia Sofia and the Blue Mosque a day of their own, combined. The former is probably the most interesting architectural site I’ve ever visited. Built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 530s, it stands where Byzantium’s Acropolis once stood, as well as two prior cathedrals of the same name, dating back to one built by Constantine in 360. It was also, following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, converted to a mosque. What makes the Sofia so interesting, at least to me, is that in its current incarnation as a museum it peels back those layers. Its stunning pillarless interior and dome bear markings of multiple religions and ruling orders, from a gold mosaic Madonna and Child to enormous merit-badge-like circles of painted camel skin, dating to the nineteenth century and bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet, and early Muslim caliphs. Nothing else in Istanbul, at least that we experienced, registers the history of overlapping cultures that marked this city that literally sits at the meeting point of Europe and Asia. Absolutely stunning.


A day earlier we had visited the Basilica Cistern nearby, also completed by Justinian in the 530s. Go, Justinian. I don’t know what all else that brother did, much of it probably abhorrent — I’m sure this shit was built by slaves, and I read somewhere that he had 30,000 rioting sports fans executed — but he gets my vote between this and the Sofia. Seriously, man.


The Haghia Sofia may not look it on the outside, but the inside is for reals. The Blue Mosque, on the other hand, is all about the approach. Here’s why you want to walk in from the Hippodrome:


Look, we only spent four nights in Istanbul, our first trip, and the make-up of our party meant that we didn’t even make it to the Turkish baths. We also didn’t get to Chora, which everyone told us we should. But we did take a small boat — not one of the big ferries — up the Bosphorus, which I would totally recommend. And, following advice we got from so many friends, we had some of those 5-Lira fish sandwiches they fix up under the Galata Bridge.


So should you if you make the trip. And let us know if you’re going so we can meet you there?

A few more photos here, filed under March 2013.


4 responses to “Istanbul advice”

  1. Ssw says:

    I was really surprised that so few people spoke English. Athens is much different that way. I got to meet up w friends and eat by the port last night-it was such a welcoming and friendly nite. Off to Rome this morning.

  2. Farrell Fawcett says:

    These photos and descriptions are stunning. And your advice about approaching the Blue Mosque belongs in a guide book. I’ll try to remember that tip the next time I visit. And hiring a guide–what a smart grown-up thing to do. This post made me realize how much I’d appreciate it if this site had a “like” option. Is this possible Dave?

  3. Ssw says:

    I have had that instinct ever since using FB.

  4. jeremy says: